Yesterday’s GOP onslaught in the midterm elections was the equivalent to George Foreman annihilating Joe Frazier in that infamous heavyweight title bout that saw Smokin’ Joe take six knockdowns on the way to losing that epic battle. Republicans picked up Senate seats in Arkansas, West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, North Carolina and Iowa to gain control of both houses in Congress for the first time in eight years. In South Carolina voters made Republican Tim Scott the first African-American elected to the U.S. Senate from the state and the first Black elected to statewide office since Recostruction. As a result, President Obama is left to contend with an extremely divided government and hostile opposition for the duration of his tenure in the White House. What began six years ago as a presidency of hopeful ambition and historic magnitude will conclude constrained by the political polarization that has come to define our national politics.
More than just gain the majority in the Senate, Republicans also picked up key governor seats in Florida and Illinois and scored a surprise victory in deeply blue Maryland, and held onto Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Georgia. The win by Larry Hogan over Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown perhaps defines Democratic fortunes more than any other race. Brown was seeking to become the Chesapeake state’s first African-American governor in a state that is a Democratic stronghold, boasts a large Black electorate and the Democratic vote rich areas of Prince George’s County and the city of Baltimore. The loss by Brown defies logic even in the face of a rising GOP tide and suggests the Democratic Party has some significant retooling to do prior to the 2016 presidential election. The one bright spot for the Democrats was capturing the governor’s seat in Pennsylvania.
Republicans masterfully suppressed its most extreme elements and painted the President as ineffectual and unwilling to compromise. While the GOP fringe played with scare tactics such as terrorism and the Ebola crisis, the party’s mainstream simply pounded away at the President and scared Democrats in congressional races to the point of their distancing themselves from President Obama on the campaign trail. It was clear that things were going south for the Democrats when one of their senatorial candidates would not even admit to voting for the President.
One area of interest as the results are further analyzed will be Black voter turnout. Judging by the results in Maryland, Illinois, Michigan and Florida, low Black voter turnout could have amplified the dismal outcome for Democrats yesterday. It is no secret that while President Obama remains popular among Black voters and Blacks in general, there is growing disillusionment over the track record of the White House in putting forth effective policies to improve economic conditions for Black Americans. Brown’s loss in particular might be the result of low voter turnout in Baltimore and the Washington suburbs of Prince George’s County. Democrats had been making overtly racial appeals to its base in the closing weeks of the campaign and there were some questions over whether that strategy might backfire and have the opposite effect. The appeal to racial pride and the legacy of civil rights that worked so effectively in the President’s two campaigns might have run its course in the present cycle as Blacks look for more practical evidence that their interests are being protected.
There are some very practical considerations resulting from the midterm elections that far exceed the symbolic. There will be a change in leadership of the Senate as Nevada’s Harry Reid hands over the reins to Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. The leadership of committees will now switch hands as Republicans will have complete control of the agenda and policy setting apparatus on the Hill. We can expect more hearings to publicly challenge White House initiatives and the investigative powers of Congress unleashed on the administration. The GOP’s control of committees in Congress also has serious implications for the judicial nomination process and the President’s ability to get his nominees approved. President Obama will now find he must cherry pick nominees to meet the approval of the Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee, meaning his picks will likely be more moderate or lean conservative in order to be confirmed.
Given the already disconnected state of the Black electorate from federal policy, the next two years will try the patience of Blacks who will witness a diminished presidential administration that will move even further away from race focused remedies. There will likely be symbolic flashes of cultural relevance from the Obama White House but substantive policy is unlikely and worse, there will be instances when the administration will be on the defensive, attempting to hold the line on Republican encroachments. One such area is voting rights. Given the outcome in state houses, expect Republicans to continue to whittle away at established voting protections and to push devices that will impair Black voter participation. Protection of voting rights was a priority for outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder and he took on states that sought to impose Voter ID laws or prevent early or multiple-day voting. The GOP’s victories in places like North Carolina, Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Ohio, combined with Holder’s imminent departure, could be disastrous for Black voter participation in the 2016 presidential election.